by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, Aug. 31 (Xinhua) — Israel’s initial response to the COVID-19 crisis was deemed a success. Quick to impose strict measures led to containment of the virus, cases plummeted. Emboldened by the success in curbing the spread of the virus, the measures were lifted.
Israelis were told by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “go have a good time, enjoy life.”
In a matter of time cases started to rise and a heated debate began on whether new restrictions should be imposed and to what extent. Over 900 Israelis have died of the virus and there have been more than 100,000 confirmed cases. Some of the largest hospitals have already reached full capacity in their COVID-19 wards.
“The situation is very fragile and there is no real control,” said Cyrille Cohen, vice dean of the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University.
On Sunday, the COVID-19 cabinet approved a “traffic light” plan in an attempt to reign in the virus, as it has spiraled out of control in recent weeks. The plan was on the table for several weeks and ran into severe political opposition.
The approval process was a display of what has gone wrong in Israel – political considerations come in the way and turned into a lethal combination that sidelined health considerations. The result has been a steady increase in daily cases, often reaching over 1,800 new infections every day.
From a desirable ranking in the beginning of the pandemic, Israel is now in the top ten countries in infection rate on a per capita basis.
“The big mission is to lead a health policy with the backing of the political system and unfortunately this is not happening,” Cohen told Xinhua.
The “traffic light” plan, devised by Prof. Ronni Gamzu, is essentially a localized approach to battle the virus. Gamzu was appointed national coronavirus project manager over a month ago and has since encountered opposition from cabinet members which have vetoed several critical moves needed to fight the spread of the virus. Almost every policy suggestion Gamzu and his team of advisers brought to the table was politicized.
Gamzu’s plan divides the country into three types of areas depending on morbidity rates, with green areas allowed to lead a less restricted routine while red areas will be quarantined. Currently infection rates are especially high in Jewish ultra-orthodox and Arab cities, raising calls of discrimination.
“There is certainly room to consider religious and cultural aspects, but to make it a political struggle is a mistake and makes the public lose trust. This is very problematic,” said Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.
Ahead of the opening of the school system on Tuesday, there is concern that over-crowded classrooms and teenagers who do not adhere to social distancing standards will see yet another uptick in cases. But the struggling economy has led the government to choose a treacherous path – keeping the economy running while trying to contain the virus.
“One cannot ignore that this is not only a health crisis, but a social and economic one,” said Cohen.
The plan which will come into effect next week cannot stand alone. Israel has failed to bolster its epidemiological investigation system and enforcement of masks and social distancing is mediocre at best.
In the coming weeks, Jews will also begin celebrating a series of holidays marking the beginning of a new year. Large gatherings are custom and have proven to be the weakest point in the society, not only during holidays.
“The gatherings are causing us to lose our balance,” said Davidovitch.
There has been mention of a renewed lockdown while many experts are against such a measure. Opposers say a country-wide quarantine would deal an irreversible blow to the economy while not reigning in the virus, because the country is not prepared properly for re-opening after lockdown.
“There is no magical solution,” Davidovitch told Xinhua, “We need a combination of things, including better information and law enforcement.”
The aim to reach a daily rate of a few hundred cases by the beginning of the school year has been missed.
“We will see new cases every day, there is no doubt. The question is how do we control the number and right now, we do not have enough control,” Cohen said. Enditem